On the surface, it would seem that right now is a great time for all things vampire. Twilight has sparkled its way into cultural omnipresence. True Blood has critical cachet, not to mention enough gratuitous nudity to make it appointment television for certain types of nerdy pervs. And Syfy’s adaptation of Being Human, about a vampire sharing an apartment with a werewolf and a ghost, has the promise to be, well, better than Lexx.
But dig a little deeper and the truth becomes clear: Vampires may be popular, but they’ve paid a terrible price for it. Simply put, they’re not scary any more. They’re not monsters, at least not in the traditional sense. And so, having been de-fanged (as it were), they’ve been shoved to a different place in the cultural marketplace while center stage for monsters has been claimed by an entirely different species of undead: zombies.
Without diving too deeply into the historical, it’s still safe to say that the vampire figure has always meant something. The classic Nosferatu – snaggle-toothed, desiccated and inhuman – is a creature of plague, a manifestation of terrible wasting disease. The classic Victorian incarnation is all about bad sex, seductive and terrible. More recently, AIDS metaphors were the vampire trope du jour.
And all of these flavors of monsters are accepted as existing just as they are. They’re things outside the natural order, neither sympathetic nor incomprehensible. What they stand for is obvious and instantly understood. Give in to Dracula’s lascivious blandishments and you will go mad, you will abandon your family, you will in turn seek to infect others. That’s just the way it works; everyone who confronts it understands it and then acts accordingly.
These days, however, it’s not good enough. We can’t just accept vampires as being monsters who like to drink blood. They need an explanation and an excuse, a rationale for what they’re doing that undercuts their archetypal nature. In 2009’s Jesus-of-the-vampires flick Daybreakers, the vampires are addicts, only becoming truly brutal when they can’t get a fix of the good old red stuff. Recent bestselling doorstops The Passage and The Strain both walk down the path laid out by the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, rendering vampires as plague victims themselves. Transformed by pathogens into ravening inhuman things, these vampires (or whatever euphemisms the authors choose to slap on them) just can’t help themselves. There’s no agency there, and so we find ourselves pitying them, just a little bit.
And pity is anathema to fear. The notion of getting killed by one of the beasts on the pages of The Passage may be scary, but there’s nothing about them in and of themselves that leaps off the page and frightens the reader.
The Gang’s All Here
Of recent vampire pop-culture phenomena, very few have featured just vampires. Let the Right One In and its American remake, yes, but Twilight is chock full of werewolves. Being Human hits three supernatural species right off the bat. And by the end of last season, True Blood was a cryptozoological United Nations. Vampires now have to operate in context, as opposed to being placed in simple opposition to humanity, and as such they don’t get to do scary vampire things as much. It becomes a comic book scenario – vampire vs. werewolf is a lot closer to Superman vs. Batman than you’d think – and that reduces all parties to glorified action figures. There’s no scare there, because it’s powers against powers, not frail human flesh against something terrifying.
Zombies, on the other hand, travel in homogenous hordes. Go up against zombies and you’re up against zombies – a clean, clear distinction where the lines are drawn between the living and the dead, and the words “Team Edward” will never be uttered.
Mythology Is Hard
Vampires are killed by A) garlic B) crosses C) any religious symbol D) a stake to the heart E) Joss Whedon dialog F) bullets with liquid sunlight in them or G) cheese. Apart from G (though to be fair, a good garlicky chevre might do the job), any and all of them would work, depending on whose vampires you were playing with. As vampires blossomed in popularity in the post-Anne Rice era, the number of mythologies around them exploded. Everyone reinvented vampires to suit their needs; the cultural shorthand as to what vampires were and how you dealt with them was lost in the muddle.
Zombies, on the other hand, come in basically four flavors: fast and made by science (28 Days Later, Left 4 Dead), fast and made by magic (Day of the Dead), slow and made by magic (Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) or slow and made by science (The Walking Dead). That’s it. They’re fast or they’re slow, and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
You get the same thing socially. Vampires have been subjected to ever-increasingly complicated histories and genealogies of late. Clans, lineages, origin myths, rituals, rites and a creepily made-up Dakota Fanning – all of these are red meat for the dedicated vampire fan who wants to dive into the subject matter as surely as a wannabe Jedi grows a rattail. And there’s certainly monstrous hay to be made on the notion of centuries-old rituals and unfeeling, predatory beasts hidden behind a veneer of ancient civilization.
At the same time, though, these trappings and constructs can sap the visceral power of vampire-as-monster. They’re hard work to get right, they’re convoluted, and they’re often dry. Memorization is thinking, and thinking runs counter to feeling, and if you’re thinking too hard about the latest Coterie chart of which vampire is related to who, you’re not crapping your pants with terror because some ancient beastie is going to sink its fangs into your neck.
And that’s where zombies get another advantage in the fight for screen time. They’re easy to understand, they’re accessible, and they’re not over-intellectualized. You can get right to the good stuff with a zombie (good stuff being defined as “blood and guts”) without having to learn how they interact, who was a zombie first, and so forth.
Indeed, the fact that zombies are barely individuated (if at all) could be the key to the whole thing.
Whose Apocalypse Is It Anyway?
As far as supernatural end-of-the-world scenarios go, the zombie apocalypse would seem to be one of the less threatening ones. Sure, if you get chomped you get zombified yourself, but zombies are slow, stupid, and not terribly good at defending themselves. There’s a reason The Walking Dead isn’t called The Running Dead, The Sprinting Dead, or The Crawling Through The Air Ducts Ready To Drop Down On You Like Goddamn Batman Dead; it’s because its zombies … just … walk. Any logical resistance involving things like roadblocks, flamethrowers, bulldozers or locked stairwells would seem to put a pretty significant crimp in the inexorable zombie advance.
A vampire apocalypse, on the other hand, is a much scarier proposition. Vampires are smart. They’re fast. They have – depending on which version of the myth you play with – magical powers. Their bite turns you just as surely as a zombie bite does, and it takes more than a slug to the head to take one down. And that’s before you start adding in the various Renfield types under their control. Put a closed door in front of a zombie and he’ll keep walking into it. Put it in front of a vampire and he’ll turn to mist and waft in through the keyhole, or climb the outside of the building, or, well, let’s just say your odds of being completely screwed are a lot higher.
But it’s the zombie apocalypse that everyone talks about, jokes about, buys books about, and tweets internet memes about. That’s our monster-driven eschatology of choice (sorry, Cloverfield). Vampires, instead of wanting to take over the world, seem to have bought whole-heartedly into the LARPy notion of hiding in plain sight, dwelling among humans and hoping not to attract too much attention while they do it. Even balls-to-the-walls vampires in films like Let the Right One In blend with mortals – they move from place to place, they operate through human catspaws, and they run rather than make a stand. They’re not interested in ruling the world, just in continuing to survive in it.
And that, perhaps, is the last piece in understanding why vampires have moved to the sidelines.
It’s Not About The Monsters, Stupid
Ultimately, all of these traits that have shuffled vampires away from leading monsterdom have something in common: They force us to engage with the vampire individually. Give a vampire a history, give him a sense of self-preservation, give a vampire a plan and a name and something he wants, and you’ve created something complicated. You’ve created a monster you have to interact with partially on his terms, because he’s got a say in how things are going to turn out. You’ve got a situation where the conflict is partially about the monster.
Zombie scenarios, on the other hand, aren’t. They’re about the survivors, and the vast majority function as pats on the back to the protagonists for being stronger, smarter, and cleverer than the poor schmucks who got caught by the zombies. The monsters are in a sense incidental, there to make the humans look good and to allow the reader to identify with those stronger, smarter, better-prepared protagonists.
And zombies will let you do that to them, because that’s what they’re there for: to surge mindlessly and hungrily, to stand as examples of what the human protagonists are not, and to be scary by dint of simple, easily-understood directives. That’s not to say they’re not monstrous, but they’re a sort of monstrous that’s easily controlled, directed, and diverted to the author’s ends, and that doesn’t necessarily raise a lot of questions beyond “How many rounds you got left?”
Vampires don’t let you get away with that, not even the sparkly ones who sit mooning over what is, after all, lunch in a very pretty package; they all still have motivations and individual approaches. And by doing so, by seizing the narrative initiative in even the smallest ways, they take the spotlight away from the human protagonists – and by extension, away from us, the readers and viewers.
So bring on the zombies. As monsters go, they’re much less demanding.
Richard Dansky wrote Clan Novel: Lasombra as part of his radical anti-zombie agenda. Clearly, it failed.